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The concept of bodybuilding has been around for centuries, but the bodybuilding we know today first became popular in the 1950s. Plenty of great physiques have walked the stage over the years, and any fan can tell you that the sport is constantly evolving. Although the sport has changed a lot, there’s a handful of men that are known as the best bodybuilders of all time. These men, whether through their achievements or impact on the sport, have cemented themselves in history.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is arguably the most well-known bodybuilder of all time. Aside from his achievements in bodybuilding, he was also a successful actor and the governor of California. Arnold is sort of an outlier on this list because he’s a popular public figure even if we eliminate his bodybuilding career. You can argue that more people know him for his acting roles in the Terminator and Conan series as opposed to fitness.
- Six consecutive Mr. Olympia wins from 1970-1975
- Mr. Olympia winner in 1980 (7th win)
- Amateur Mr. Universe winner in 1967
- Pro Mr. Universe Winner from 1968-1970
- Namesake of the Arnold Classic / Arnold Sports Festival
- AAU Mr. World in 1970
- Star of bodybuilding film Pumping Iron
Imagine you get pulled over for speeding and the cop that stops you is no other than Ronnie Coleman. That’s right – in addition to being one of the best bodybuilders ever, Ronnie Coleman was a police officer for over a decade. He came to fame in the mass-monster era of the 1990s when size and conditioning were at never-before-seen levels.
- Eight consecutive Mr. Olympia wins from 1998-2005
- Mr. Texas (heavyweight and overall) in 1990
- World Amateur Champion in 1991
- 2-time Canada Pro Cup winner from 1995-1996
- 26 total IFBB professional wins
- Tied for most Mr. Olympia wins (8)
Ronnie Coleman had a relentless work ethic in his prime. He’s regarded for the intensity of his workouts and his brute strength. Many critics and fans agree that Coleman is the strongest bodybuilder of all time. This claim is backed up by his impressive lifts: an 800-pound deadlift for two reps, an 800-pound squat for two reps, and a 500-pound bench press for five reps.
Coleman was the first bodybuilder to match Lee Haney’s eight Mr. Olympia wins. This feat earned him the nickname of “The King”, and rightfully so as the record still stands. Ronnie’s size and conditioning were ahead of his time and led many people to believe he was a genetic phenom. At 5’11” he had a stage weight of ~300 pounds and yet his conditioning was always on point.
Towards the end of his career, Ronnie Coleman dealt with severe chronic pain. He underwent several surgeries to alleviate the pain, but the surgeries resulted in more harm than good. In 2020, Ronnie announced that he can’t walk without assistance from a cane or wheelchair of some sort.
Lee Haney was the first bodybuilder to win eight Mr. Olympia titles. He rose to fame in the 1980s shortly after Arnold Schwarzenegger won his last Olympia title. Despite not having as much publicity as guys like Arnold and Ronnie Coleman, Lee Haney was dominant for well over a decade.
Throughout his prime, Haney had an impressive v-taper which was highlighted by his wide shoulders and narrow waist. He was one of the first bodybuilders in the post-Arnold era to gracefully combine mass and aesthetics. Reports from Muscle & Fitness suggest his small bones and joints contributed greatly to his aesthetic physique. He was a breath of fresh air compared to the smaller bodybuilders that reigned from 1977-1983.
- Eight consecutive Mr. Olympia wins from 1984-1991
- Teen Mr. America in 1979
- Night of Champions winner in 1983
- World Amateur Champion in 1982
- National Champion (heavyweight and overall) in 1982
- Grand Prix Las Vegas winner in 1983
- Tied for most Mr. Olympia wins (8)
Lee Haney’s greatness is clear because he’s the only bodybuilder other than Ronnie Coleman to win eight Mr. Olympia titles. Considering Haney had less mass than Coleman, you can argue that his career was even more impressive. Lee embodied the idea of “training to stimulate” instead of “training to annihilate” which was a unique approach given his musculature. Nonetheless, this ideology likely kept him in better health than some of his peers.
Haney’s continued contributing to fitness after retiring from bodybuilding. He was the chairman of the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition from 1999-2002 under President Bill Clinton. In addition to this, he had his own fitness program on the Trinity Broadcasting Network.
Phil Heath is the most successful bodybuilder of the 2010s. He started bodybuilding in 2002 and earned his pro-card in 2005 when he won the NPC USA Championship. He won his first two pro shows in 2006, but it wasn’t until 2008 that he started competing at the Mr. Olympia.
Heath is widely considered as one of the most genetically blessed bodybuilders, hence his nickname as “The Gift”. He’s known for his 3-D musculature and overall balanced physique. Phil was a division 1 basketball player at the University of Denver prior to bodybuilding. This likely gave him a better understanding of weight training early in his career.
- Seven consecutive Mr. Olympia wins from 2011-2017
- Arnold Classic Europe champion in 2013
- New York Pro champion in 2006
- Colorado Pro champion in 2006
- IFBB Ironman champion in 2008
- Namesake of the NPC Phil Heath Classic
- Tied with Arnold for 2nd-most Olympia wins of all time (7)
Phil Heath is one of four people that have won seven or more Mr. Olympia titles. He’s the only one to accomplish this feat in the last decade. Considering the Olympia is the pinnacle of competitive bodybuilding, Phil Heath’s greatness is clear.
Although he’s still active as a bodybuilder, Heath is not as dominant as he once was. He’s spent the last few years fine-tuning problems with his physique which largely revolved around his midsection. His last competition was at the 2020 Mr. Olympia where he placed third.
Who knows where the sport of bodybuilding would be without Sergio Oliva. Despite not having as many wins as some of the other all time greats, his physique is regarded as one of the best. He was the only man throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s to give Arnold a run for his money. In fact, Arnold stated in his autobiography that “there was no way I could even think of beating him” at the 1969 Mr. Olympia competition.
Sergio Oliva was, by all accounts, the first real mass monster in bodybuilding. His 22-inch arms were a rarity at the time, and his lat-spread left many people in awe. These attributes in particular earned him the nickname of ‘The Myth’. He combined the strengths of his physique to create the famous victory pose.
- Mr. Chicago winner in 1963
- Mr. Illinois winner in 1964
- Mr. World in 1966 (tall and overall winner)
- Mr. Universe in 1966
- Mr. Universe in 1967
- Three consecutive Mr. Olympia wins from 1967-1969.
Oliva was the first man to win three consecutive Mr. Olympia titles. In a sense, he transformed the sport because his size and conditioning was unparalleled prior to Arnold’s dominance. He was so impressive that he won the 1968 Mr. Olympia in uncontested fashion – a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since. Competitors knew Sergio Oliva was the gold standard, and physiques started to improve to meet this standard.
Unfortunately, Sergio was also the first Mr. Olympia to pass away. His death in 2012 was mourned heavily throughout the bodybuilding community as many all time greats paid their respects. Nowadays his legacy is carried on by his son Sergio Oliva Jr. who is also a professional bodybuilder.
Jay Cutler started bodybuilding at the age of 18 and remained competitive for roughly two decades. He was prolific throughout the 2000s when his primary competition was the great Ronnie Coleman. Cutler is the only individual in bodybuilding history to win consecutive Mr. Olympia titles on two separate occasions.
In his prime, Jay Cutler was well known for his massive legs. He popularized the quad stomp pose which highlighted separation and striations in the quadriceps. Considering his primary competition was Ronnie Coleman, Cutler had no choice other than to be a mass monster. At 5’10” he hovered around 260 pounds on-stage and ~290 pounds in the offseason.
- Four-time Mr. Olympia (2006-2007 & 2009-2010)
- Six-time Mr. Olympia runner-up
- Only bodybuilder with consecutive Mr. Olympia wins twice
- Three-consecutive Arnold Classic wins from 2002-2004
- IFBB Night of Champions winner in 2000
- Ironman Pro Invitational winner in 2003
- Five Grand Prix wins from 2003-2006
In addition to his many achievements, Jay is known for making the best comeback in bodybuilding history. This occurred when he won the Olympia in 2009 after taking time off. At the time, fans and judges expected Cutler to be lagging after a year of not competing, but he ended up with his best physique to date.
Jay Cutler’s legacy extends beyond being a competitor. He owns a successful supplement company, Cutler Nutrition, and also markets gym apparel. Although he stopped competing after 2013, Cutler still posts plenty of fitness content across his social media channels. Despite being impossible to confirm, he’s known to be very approachable and often takes time to interact with fans in public.
Dorian Yates was arguably the best bodybuilder of the 1990s, highlighted by his six Mr. Olympia wins. He brought a level of intensity to the sport of bodybuilding that seemed to overshadow his predecessor Lee Haney. Regarding his physique, Yates is known for having one of the best backs in bodybuilding.
Dorian Yates was one of the first examples of the death face. In bodybuilding, the death face refers to the hollow, skeleton-like appearance your face gets when you’re extremely lean. His level of conditioning was unparalleled at the time and thus he reaped the benefits.
- Six consecutive Mr. Olympia wins from 1992-1997
- Night of Champions winner in 1991
- English Grand Prix champion (1991, 1992, 1994, 1996)
- Spanish Grand Prix champion (1994, 1996)
- German Grand Prix champion (1994, 1996)
Yates’ competitive career ended largely due to chronic injuries, but the end was almost symbolic if we look at bodybuilding history. Prior to Yates, it was Lee Haney who passed the torch. This time around, it was Dorian Yates that passed the torch to Ronnie Coleman. All three men are considered some of the best bodybuilders of all time, and all three knew when to give it up.
Nowadays, Dorian is still involved in the fitness industry. He embarked on several business ventures after retiring, most notably starting up three different supplement companies. Currently, his main focus is DY Nutrition, a supplement company that also sells apparel and books.
Keep in mind that this article focuses exclusively on open-level bodybuilders. The reason for this is because the other divisions of bodybuilding are relatively new in comparison. Nonetheless, the guys who compete in classic physique or 212 are still bodybuilders, and a few of them deserve to be mentioned.
Cbum is currently making a name for himself in the classic physique division. He recently won his fourth consecutive Mr. Olympia title which is the record in classic physique. Despite being young, Bumstead’s physique is amongst the most aesthetic to ever grace the stage. For more information, feel free to check out this article.
James “Flex” Lewis
Flex Lewis was a dominant competitor in the 212 division. He won seven consecutive 212 Mr. Olympia titles from 2012-2018. The 212 division is the most similar to the open despite having a weight limit in place. As such, Flex Lewis deserves his credit as the best 212 bodybuilders, and one of the best bodybuilders across all divisions.
Naming the best bodybuilders of all time is a subjective topic. Nonetheless, we can look at an individual’s accomplishments and impact on the sport to make a proper conclusion. Throughout this article, we’ve discussed several of the all time greats and how they managed to build their legacies.
The sport of bodybuilding is constantly evolving, so this list is subject to change. It’s important to note, however, that achieving greatness in bodybuilding is not an easy task. Chances are, it could take decades for an individual to build a resume equal to the gentlemen featured in this article.
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